Effective Nonviolent Alternatives to Resist Invasion and Occupation

March 2nd, 2022 - by Daniel Hunter and George Lakey / Waging Nonviolence

Ukraine’s Secret Weapon: Civilian Resistance

Unarmed Ukrainians changing road signs,
blocking tanks and confronting the Russian military
are showing their bravery and strategic brilliance.

Daniel Hunter / Waging Nonviolence

(February 27, 2022) — Predictably, much of the Western press has focused on Ukrainian diplomatic or military resistance to Russia’s invasion, such as the arming of regular citizens to patrol and protect.

These forces have already proven stronger than Russian President Vladimir Putin has expected and are disrupting his plans with great courage. Take Yaryna Arieva and Sviatoslav Fursin who got married amidst air raid sirens. Right after their marriage vows they proceeded to sign-up with the local Territorial Defense Center to defend their country.

History shows that successful resistance against a militarily stronger opponent often requires a wide variety of resistance, including from those who are unarmed — a role that is often given less attention, both by the mainstream media and by maniacal power-obsessed opponents.

Yet, even as Putin’s swift invasion of Ukraine has left a lot of shock, Ukrainians are showing what unarmed people can do to resist, too.

Ukranian road signs altered to send a message to the Russians: “Fuck you.”

Make it Hard for the Invaders

At this moment, the Russian military playbook appears to be focusing primarily on destroying the military and political infrastructure in Ukraine. The country’s military and newly armed civilians, as heroic as they are, are known factors for Russia. Just as the Western press ignores unarmed civilian resistance, the Russian military appears unprepared and clueless to this, too.

As people move past the shock of the past few days, it’s this unarmed part of the resistance that’s gaining momentum. Ukraine’s streets agency, Ukravtodor, called for “all road organizations, territorial communities, local governments to immediately begin dismantling nearby road signs.” They emphasized this with a photoshopped highway sign renamed: “Fuck you” “Again fuck you” and “To Russia fuck you.” Sources tell me versions of these are happening in real life. (The New York Times has reported on the sign changes as well.)

That same agency encouraged people to “block the enemy by all available methods.” People are using cranes to move cement blocks in the way, or regular citizens are setting up sandbags to block roadways.

Ukrainian news outlet HB showed a young man using his body to physically get in the way of a military convoy as they steamrolled through the streets. Reminiscent of Tiananmen Square’s “Tank Man,” the man stepped in front of speeding trucks, forcing them to veer around him and off the road. Unarmed and unprotected, his act is a symbol of bravery and risk.

Unarmed Ukrainian man blocking a Russian tank in Bakhmach. (Twitter/@christogrozev)

This was echoed again by an individual in Bakhmach who, similarly, put his body in front of moving tanks and repeatedly pushed against them. However, it appeared many supporters were videotaping, but not participating. This is worth noting because — when consciously executed — these types of actions can be rapidly built upon. Coordinated resistance can spread and move from inspirational isolated acts to decisive acts capable of rebuffing an advancing army.

Very recent social media reports are showing this collective noncooperation. In shared videos, unarmed communities are facing down Russian tanks with apparent success. In this dramatic recorded confrontation, for example, community members walk slowly towards the tanks, open handed, and mostly without any words. The tank driver either does not have authorization or interest in opening fire. They choose retreat. This is being repeated in small towns across Ukraine.

These communal actions are often carried out by affinity groups — tiny cells of like-minded friends. Given the likelihood of repression, affinity groups can develop methods of communication (assuming the internet/cell phone service will be shut-down) and keep a level of tight planning. In long-term occupations, these cells may also emerge from existing networks — schools, churches/mosques and other institutions.

George Lakey makes the case for Ukrainian total noncooperation with an invading force, citing Czechoslovakia, where in 1968 people also renamed signs. In one instance, hundreds of people with linked arms blocked a major bridge for hours until Soviet tanks turned around in retreat.

The theme was total noncooperation wherever possible. Need oil? No. Need water? No. Need directions? Here’s the wrong ones.

Militaries assume that because they have guns they can get their way with unarmed civilians. Each act of noncooperation proves them wrong. Each resistance makes every tiny goal of the invaders a hard battle. Death by a thousand cuts.

No Stranger to Noncooperation

Just ahead of the invasion, researcher Maciej Mathias Bartkowski published an article with insightful data on Ukranian’s commitment to noncooperation. He noted a poll “just after the Euromaidan revolution and the capture of Crimea and the Donbas region by Russian troops, when it could be expected that Ukrainian public opinion would be strongly in favor of defending the motherland with arms.” People were asked what they would do if a foreign armed occupation took place in their town.

The plurality said they would engage in a civil resistance (26 percent), just ahead of the percentage ready to take arms (25 percent). The others were a mix of people who just didn’t know (19 percent) or said they would leave/move to another region.

The field of nonviolent resistance is heavy with examples of how the morale of soldiers gets reduced in the face of prolonged resistance, especially when civilians view the military as made-up of human beings that can be interacted with.

Ukranians have made clear their readiness to resist. And that should be no surprise to people familiar with Ukraine’s proud history and tradition. Most have contemporary examples in recent memory — as recounted in Netflix’s documentary “Winter on Fire” about the 2013-2014 Maidan revolution or the 17-day nonviolent resistance to overthrow their corrupt government in 2004, as recounted by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict’s film “Orange Revolution.”

One of Bartkowski’s key conclusions: “Putin’s belief that Ukrainians would rather go home and do nothing in the face of military aggression may be his biggest and politically most costly miscalculation.”


Weaken the Resolve of the Russian Military

Casually, people talk about the “Russian military” as if it’s a single-minded hive. But in fact all militaries are made up of individuals with their own stories, concerns, dreams and hopes. U.S. government intelligence, which has been surprisingly accurate in this moment, has asserted that Putin has not achieved his goals during this first phase of attack.

This suggests that the Russian military morale may be a little bit shaken by the resistance they’ve already seen. It’s not the expected quick win. In explaining the ability of Ukraine to hold its airspace, for example, the New York Times suggested a range of factors: a more seasoned army, more mobile air defense systems and likely poor Russian intelligence, which appeared to hit old, unused targets.

But if the Ukrainian armed forces begin to falter, then what?

Morale could swing back towards Russian invaders. Or they could instead find themselves met with even more resistance.

The field of nonviolent resistance is heavy with examples of how the morale of soldiers gets reduced in the face of prolonged resistance, especially when civilians view the military as made-up of human beings that can be interacted with.

Tiny cracks are already showing. On Saturday, in Perevalne, Crimea, Euromaidan Press reported that “half of Russian conscripts ran away and did not want to fight.”

Take inspiration from this old woman who stands down the Russian military in Henychesk, Kherson region. With arms outstretched she approaches soldiers, telling them they are not wanted here. She reaches into her pocket and takes out sunflower seeds and tries to put them in the soldier’s pocket, saying that the flowers would grow when the soldiers die on this land.

She’s involved in a human moral confrontation. The soldier is uncomfortable, edgy and reluctant to engage with her. But she stays pushy, confrontational and no-nonsense.

While we don’t know the outcome of this situation, scholars have noted how these types of repeated interactions shape the behavior of the opposing forces. The individuals in the military themselves are moveable creatures and can have their resolve weakened.

In other countries this strategic insight has proven capable of causing mass mutinies. The young Serbians in Otpor regularly said to their military opponents, “You’ll have a chance to join us.” They would use a mix of humor, berating and shame to target. In the Philippines, civilians surrounded the army and showered them with prayers, pleas and iconic flowers in their guns. In each case, the commitment paid off, as large chunks of the armed forces refused to shoot.

The Dangerous Belief that Force Means Safety

The Ukrainian government’s choice to use their military to defend against Russia reminds me of the stark contrast between the choices of the Danish and Norwegian governments when faced with threat from the Nazi German war machine. Like the Ukrainian government, the Norwegian government chose to fight militarily. Germany invaded and the Norwegian army resisted all the way to the Arctic Circle. There was widespread suffering and loss, and even after the end of World War II, it took many years for the Norwegians to recover. When I studied in Norway in 1959 rationing was still in effect.

At first glance that was the situation of Czechoslovakia on August 20, 1968, when the Soviet Union moved to re-assert its domination — Czech military power couldn’t save it. The country’s leader, Alexander Dubcek, locked his soldiers in their barracks to prevent a futile set of skirmishes that could only result in wounded and killed. As the troops of the Warsaw Pact marched into his country, he wrote instructions to his diplomats at the U.N. to make a case there, and used the midnight hours to prepare himself for arrest and the fate that awaited him in Moscow.

However, unnoticed by Dubcek, or foreign reporters or the invaders, there was the equivalent of a water source in the ravine behind the cemetery. What tapped it was the previous months of vibrant political expression by a growing movement of dissenters determined to create a new kind of social order: “socialism with a human face.” Large numbers of Czechs and Slovaks were already in motion before the invasion, acting together as they excitedly developed a new vision.

Their momentum served them well when the invasion began, and they improvised brilliantly. On Aug. 21, there was a brief standstill in Prague reportedly observed by hundreds of thousands. Airport officials at Ruzyno refused to supply Soviet planes with fuel. At a number of places, crowds sat in the path of oncoming tanks; in one village, citizens formed a human chain across a bridge over the river Upa for nine hours, inducing the Russian tanks eventually to turn tail.

To many observers in other countries who had wondered about the potential of tapping nonviolent power for defense, August 1968 was an eye-opener.

Swastikas were painted on tanks. Leaflets in Russian, German and Polish were distributed explaining to the invaders that they were in the wrong, and countless discussions were held between bewildered and defensive soldiers and angry Czech youths. Army units were given wrong directions, street signs and even village signs were changed, and there were refusals of cooperation and food. Clandestine radio stations broadcast advice and resistance news to the population.

On the second day of the invasion, a reported 20,000 people demonstrated in Wenceslas Square in Prague; on the third day a one-hour work stoppage left the square eerily still. On the fourth day young students and workers defied the Soviet curfew by a round-the-clock sit-down at the statue of St. Wenceslas. Nine out of 10 people on the streets of Prague were wearing Czech flags in their lapels. Whenever the Russians tried to announce something the people raised such a din that the Russians could not be heard.

Much of the energy of the resistance was spent weakening the will and increasing the confusion of the invading forces. By the third day, Soviet military authorities were putting out leaflets to their own troops with counter-arguments to those of the Czechs. The next day rotation began, with new units coming into the cities to replace Russian forces. The troops, constantly confronted but without the threat of personal injury, melted rapidly.

For the Kremlin, as well as for the Czechs and Slovaks, the stakes were high. To attain its objective of replacing the government, the Soviet Union was reportedly willing to convert Slovakia into a Soviet republic and Bohemia and Moravia into autonomous regions under Soviet control. What the Soviets overlooked, however, is that such control depends on the people’s willingness to be controlled — and that willingness was hardly to be seen.

The Kremlin was forced to compromise. Instead of arresting Dubcek and carrying out their plan, the Kremlin accepted a negotiated settlement. Both sides compromised.

For their part, the Czechs and Slovaks were brilliant nonviolent improvisers, but had no strategic plan — a plan that could bring into play their even more powerful weapons of sustained economic noncooperation, plus tapping other nonviolent tactics available. Even so, they achieved what most believed their most important goal: to continue with a Czech government rather than direct rule by the Soviets. Given the circumstances, it was in the moment a remarkable victory.

To many observers in other countries who had wondered about the potential of tapping nonviolent power for defense, August 1968 was an eye-opener. However, Czechoslovakia, wasn’t the first time real life existential threats stimulated fresh thinking about the usually-ignored power of nonviolent struggle.

Denmark and a Famous Military Strategist

Like the ongoing search for potable water that can sustain life, the search for nonviolent power that can defend democracy attracts technologists: people who like to think about technique. Such a person was B. H. Liddell Hart, a famous British military strategist I met in 1964 at the Oxford University Conference on Civilian-Based Defense. (I was told to call him “Sir Basil.”)

Liddell Hart told us that he’d been invited by the Danish government soon after World War II to consult with them on military defense strategy. He did so, and advised them to replace their military with a nonviolent defense mounted by a trained populace.

Danes found a thousand and one ways to impede their use to the Germans. This widespread, energized creativity stood in stark contrast to the military alternative.

His advice prompted me to look more closely into what the Danes actually did when militarily occupied by next-door Nazi Germany during World War II. The Danish government knew of course that violent resistance was futile and would only result in dead and despairing Danes. Instead, the spirit of resistance developed both above and below ground.

The Danish king resisted with symbolic actions, riding his horse through the streets of Copenhagen to keep up morale and wearing a Jewish star when the Nazi regime stepped up its persecution of the Jews. Many people still today know about the highly successful mass Jewish escape to neutral Sweden improvised by the Danish underground.

As the occupation ground on, the Danes became increasingly aware that their country was valuable to Hitler for its economic productivity. Hitler especially counted on the Danes to build warships for him, part of his plan to invade England.

The Danes understood (don’t we all?) that when someone depends on you for something, that gives you power! So Danish workers overnight went from being arguably the most brilliant shipbuilders of their day to the most clumsy and unproductive. Tools were “accidentally” dropped into the harbor, leaks sprang “by themselves” in the ships holds, and so on. The desperate Germans were sometimes driven to tow unfinished ships from Denmark to Hamburg in order to get them finished.

As the resistance grew, strikes became more frequent, along with workers leaving factories early because “I must get back to tending my garden while there’s still some light, because my family will starve without our vegetables.”

Danes found a thousand and one ways to impede their use to the Germans. This widespread, energized creativity stood in stark contrast to the military alternative of putting up violent resistance — carried out by only a percentage of the population — which would wound and kill many and bring stark privation to nearly all.

Factoring in the Role of Training

Other historic cases of brilliant improvised nonviolent resistance to invasion have been examined. The Norwegians, not to be outdone by the Danes, used their time under Nazi occupation to nonviolently prevent a Nazi take-over of their school system. This was despite the specific orders from the Norwegian Nazi placed in charge of the country, Vidkun Quisling, who was backed by a German occupation army of one soldier per 10 Norwegians.

Another participant I met in the Oxford conference, Wolfgang Sternstein, did his dissertation on the Ruhrkampf — the 1923 nonviolent resistance by German workers to the invasion of the coal and steel production center of the Ruhr Valley by French and Belgian troops, who were trying to seize steel production for German reparations. Wolfgang told me it was a highly effective struggle, called for by the democratic German government of that period, the Weimar Republic. It was in fact so effective that the French and Belgian governments recalled their troops because the entire Ruhr Valley went on strike. “Let them dig coal with their bayonets,” the workers said.

What strikes me as extraordinary about these and other successful cases is that the nonviolent combatants engaged in their struggle without the benefit of training. What army commander would order troops into combat without training them first?

I saw first-hand the difference it made for Northern students in the U.S. to be trained to go South to Mississippi and risk torture and death at the hands of the segregationists. The 1964 Freedom Summer considered it essential to be trained.

So, as a technique-oriented activist, I think of effective mobilization for defense requiring a thought-through strategy and solid training. Military people would agree with me. And what therefore boggles my mind is the high degree of effectiveness of nonviolent defense in these examples without benefit of either! Consider what they might have accomplished if they’d also been backed securely by strategy and training.

Why, then, wouldn’t any democratic government — not in hock to a military-industrial complex — want to seriously explore the possibilities of civilian-based defense?

Daniel Hunter is the Global Trainings Manager at 350.org and a curriculum designer with Sunrise Movement. He has trained extensively from ethnic minorities in Burma, pastors in Sierra Leone, and independence activists in northeast India. He has written multiple books, including the “Climate Resistance Handbook” and “Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow.”

The Dangerous Assumption
that Violence Keeps Us Safe

George Lakey / Waging Nonviolence

(February 26, 2022) — One of the most popular — and dangerous — assumptions in the world is that violence keeps us safe.

I live in the United States, a country where the more guns we have, the less safe we are. That helps me to notice irrational assumptions that prevent creative thought.

The Ukrainian government’s choice to use their military to defend against Russia reminds me of the stark contrast between the choices of the Danish and Norwegian governments when faced with threat from the Nazi German war machine. Like the Ukrainian government, the Norwegian government chose to fight militarily. Germany invaded and the Norwegian army resisted all the way to the Arctic Circle. There was widespread suffering and loss, and even after the end of World War II, it took many years for the Norwegians to recover. When I studied in Norway in 1959 rationing was still in effect.

The Danish government — knowing as certainly as the Norwegians that they would be defeated militarily — decided not to fight. As a result, they were able to minimize their losses compared with the Norwegians, politically and economically, as well as the immediate suffering of their people.

The flame of liberty continued to burn bright in both countries under occupation. Along with an underground movement that included violence, nonviolent struggles on multiple fronts broke out that did both countries proud. The Danes saved most of their Jews from the Holocaust; the Norwegians saved the integrity of their education system and the state church.

Both the Danes and the Norwegians faced overwhelming military might. The Danes chose not to use their army and relied largely on nonviolent struggle instead. The Norwegians used their military, paid a high price for it and then turned largely to nonviolent struggle. In both cases, the nonviolence — unprepared, with improvised strategy and no training — delivered victories that sustained the integrity of their countries.

Many Ukrainians Are Open to Nonviolent Defense

There is a remarkable study of the views of Ukrainians themselves on the chances of nonviolent defense and whether they would take part in armed or nonviolent resistance in response to a foreign-armed invasion. Perhaps because of their remarkable success in nonviolently toppling their own dictatorship, a surprising proportion do not assume that violence is their only option.

As Maciej Bartkowski, a senior advisor to the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, describes the findings, “Clear majorities chose various nonviolent resistance methods — ranging from symbolic to disruptive to constructive resistance actions against an occupier — rather than violent insurgent actions.”

Violence Is Sometimes Effective

I am not arguing that the threat or use of violence never achieves a positive result. In this short article I’m setting aside the larger philosophical discussion while recommending Aldous Huxley’s remarkable book “Ends and Means” to readers who want to delve more deeply. My point here is that a compelling belief in violence renders people irrational to the point of hurting ourselves, over and over again.

One way we’re hurt is diminished creativity. Why isn’t it automatic, when someone proposes violence, that others say “Let’s investigate and see if there’s a nonviolent way to get that done?”

In my own life I’ve been faced with violence many times. I’ve been surrounded on a street late at night by a hostile gang, I’ve had a knife pulled on me three times, I’ve faced down a gun that was pulled on someone else, and I’ve been a nonviolent bodyguard for human rights activists threatened by hit squads.

I can’t know for sure the outcome of nonviolent
or violent means ahead of time, but I can judge
the ethical nature of the means itself. 

I’m big and strong, and a while back I was young. I’ve realized that in threatening situations, as well as the larger confrontations we get into with direct action, there is a chance that I might have gained tactical victories with violence. I also knew there was a chance that I could have won with nonviolence. I’ve believed the odds are better with nonviolence, and there’s lots of evidence on my side, but who knows for sure in any given situation?

Since we can’t know for sure, it leaves the question of how to decide. This could be challenging for us as individuals, as well as for political leaders, be they Norwegian, Danish or Ukrainian. It’s no help to have a violence-loving culture pushing me with its automatic answer. To be responsible, I need to make a real choice.

If I have time, I can do the creative thing and research possible violent and nonviolent options. That could help a lot, and it’s the least we can demand of governments making decisions for its citizens. Still, developing creative options is unlikely to seal the deal because the situation before us is always unique, and predicting results is therefore a tricky matter.

I have found a solid basis for decision. I can’t know for sure the outcome of nonviolent or violent means ahead of time, but I can judge the ethical nature of the means itself. There is a clear ethical difference between violent and nonviolent means of struggle. On that basis, I can choose, and throw myself fully into that choice. At age 84, I have no regrets.

George Lakey has been active in direct action campaigns for over six decades. Recently retired from Swarthmore College, he was first arrested in the civil rights movement and most recently in the climate justice movement. He has facilitated 1,500 workshops on five continents and led activist projects on local, national and international levels. His 10 books and many articles reflect his social research into change on community and societal levels. His newest books are “Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians got it right and how we can, too” (2016) and “How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning” (2018.)


•  New paperback coming fall 2022, a memoir: Dancing with History: An Activist Life for Peace and Justice, from Seven Stories Press.
•  Recent books still popular: Facilitating Group Learning: Strategies for Success with Diverse Learnershttps://www.pmpress.org. And from Melville House: Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians got it right and how we can, too, and HOW WE WIN: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning, https://www.mhpbooks.com/books
•  Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT.org).
•  Columnist for WagingNonviolence.org
•  Global Nonviolent Action Database (http://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu)